Sam and I were on the beach again recently, the little beach near San
Quentin Prison, the world's safest beach, when we saw the ugliest real-life
thing Sam has ever seen. We had gone to the beach for just the opposite
reason. We went because we like to build things, and to throw sticks
to our dog in the surf, because the water washes off her fleas and
soothes her skin; and her joy is boundless, and that is pretty great to
see. We went because there are always other children for Sam to play
with, and everyone leaves me alone to read my dubious magazines and lie
in the sand with my ears open. The sound of the surf, the big washing
machine of ocean, sometimes seems to rinse out my brain, or at any rate,
it expands me and it calms me down.
I slow way down at the beach, and I
also surprise myself by how quickly I move there at times.
to be many things that made me run fast -- fear, joy, ambition, fast
friends -- but now the ocean is one of the few things that can still do
it: I walk along, large and cautious, only to find myself suddenly
dodging a wave, fleet as a deer. Sam hunts and gathers treasures for
his sand buildings; I sometimes help but I look around aimlessly more
than he does. He studies the work at hand. I notice the
phantasmagorical nature of people's appearance on the beach, where the
sun is either right in your eyes and you can hardly make them out or
the person is backlit, crowned with light. But when the man showed up
the other day who did the ugly thing, when he came walking down the
wooden stairs that deposit you on this small and private beach, he
looked absolutely ordinary, utterly human, a large 40-ish man in a
flannel shirt and jeans, with a big golden retriever on a leash.
Now Sam has seen a number of really frightening things in his
life. He has seen three people in the days before their death. He has
seen a dead body, but he has never seen evil before. Let's put aside
for the moment any minute hints of insanity and rage he has seen in me
over the years, and let's chalk that up to run-of-the-mill parental
meltdown. All the evil things he's ever experienced have been in
movies and books and TV. I read him scary books sometimes, books about
monsters and vampires, ghouls and demons, and he gets to see scary
movies from time to time, but when you're watching "Anaconda" with your
best friend, or lying in bed next to your mother reading Roald Dahl,
it's so different. You get to be playful with the dark stuff. It's
like you get to make a friend of it, and when you do, it can't rule
you. You get to laugh at it, you get to dance with it, step out onto
the vampire's dance floor with it and take it for a spin. And then step
back into your life.
But this was different. This was a few feet away, on the beach, and
there was nothing to play with. It was just right there, when the man
in the flannel shirt walked down the stairs and stepped onto the sand.
We were sitting near the stairs, Sam and I, watching our dog Sadie
run around making friends. She is big and black, a black Lab and golden
retriever mix, and she is the most darling girl you can ever imagine.
I've said this before, but she's like having Jesus around in a black dog
suit. She was romping around like a shy, coltish 12-year-old girl,
playing with the other dogs, when the man arrived. He had his
retriever on a leash. There was nothing unusual about
the man's look, or pose, or dog. He looked out over the ocean. His big
dog stood very still and stared straight ahead. Sadie headed over.
The two dogs touched noses, sniffed each other, kissed, cuffed.
Then the man tugged gently on the leash, to get his dog walking with him
down the beach, but the dog turned to Sadie one more time, and took one
step toward her. And the man bent down, picked up a thick stick from
the ground and smashed it into his dog's ribcage. The dog flinched,
big time, but did not even yelp. Sam did, Sam yelped, 15 feet
away. It was absolutely stunning, and all I could do was to whisper,
"No." Sadie looked at the dog, and then tore over to us. The retriever
turned to watch her go, and the man hit her again in the ribs.
Then they began walking together down the beach.
I didn't know if he was evil or just violent. Lots of people are
scary and dangerous because they are sick or stupid or powerful. Drugs
and alcohol make people sick and stupid and violent, and I don't think
that makes them evil. Evil is when you choose to do such harm. So I
don't know. We can't read other people's hearts. We just know what's in
our own hearts, what wrongs we are capable of, and oh is that terrible
knowledge to have. This is why I am so abjectly grateful, to have a God
in my life, a God of mercy and forgiveness and patience, who I believe
rolls exasperated eyes at my spiritual ineptness but lets me try again.
I desperately don't mean to do harm, and then do. For instance,
the other day I grabbed Sam's arm in a fit of rage during a controversy
involving the telephone, when he was being insolent, when he was being
what I believe Anna Freud might have called "a total little shit." But
I grabbed him too hard because I misjudged how close he was -- it was like
a snake striking, but thinking the target was three feet away when it
was actually only one foot away. So I connected too quickly; anyway, that's my
story and I'm sticking to it. And I left five red marks on his arm.
He was being utterly awful. I gave him three chances to do the
right thing, which is to say, to do what I wanted him to do, which was
to turn the ringer on the phone off. It was not a big deal. And after
the third time, he gave a bad look. I am not going to describe it,
because he has huge angelic eyes and only weighs 50 pounds, and you
are going to side with him. Or at least ask yourself, how bad could it
be? It was BAD; it was Klaus Barbie, at 8 years old, sneering at
In the blink of an eye, I -- what is the word? -- hurt him. I grabbed
him too hard, with too much force, and because I had (as I've mentioned)
misjudged the distances, I would have to say that my nails got -- what is
the word? -- embedded in his flesh. Now, I
have extremely short nails. But they went into Sam's arm.
The good news is that I got it. I got that I had done something
wrong. That I am unworthy and he should go into foster care. I had
done something Jesus would not have done. And it's hard for me to
imagine that Jesus would have next picked up the phone and thrown it so
hard against the wall that it left an indentation. But I think most of
my friends would have.
And it was bad, but please, I am not trying to justify violence,
but I did not draw blood; and I think that's a lot. Or at any rate,
it's something. I gasped and apologized, and Sam froze. His mouth
dropped open a little, and he slowly lowered his gaze until it landed on
his upper arm, and he gaped at it as if there were something sticking
out of it -- like an arrow, the arrow from the long-bow of a Japanese
feudal warrior. Then he looked up at me with horror and recoiled, as
from a hot flame.
By then it was almost all I could do not to laugh. I took a time
out, I apologized up one side and down the other, I bowed and scraped.
At some point you try to minimize the damage you do to the innocent,
even if the innocent have a tiny tiny tendency to over-dramatize things,
when you cannot imagine where the innocent little guy got that tendency
On the beach I did know one true thing. I knew that Jesus would
have stepped in to save the dog, and he would have been loving the
dog-beater as he did so. He wouldn't have made the dog-beater feel
better, but he would have been loving him; he would have been
seeing the dog-beater's need and fear. Boy, I am not there yet. I'm
perhaps a bit more into blame and revenge; also, I find that
self-righteousness can be very comforting. But Jesus is very clear on
this point. He doesn't say, "Love everyone unless they're being really
rude." He doesn't say, "Love your parents unless they're completely
irritating the shit out of you."
In Luke's gospel, one of the two thieves who is being crucified
beside Jesus is reviling him, getting into what the mob is saying, which
is that Jesus is a pretty sorry-assed Son of God if he can't even save
himself. But the other thief turns to the first one, and out of his own
anguish, he shows compassion to Jesus -- he stands up for him. He says
that Jesus hurt no one, and that they should not join in hurting him.
In terrible pain, he says, in effect, "Don't kick the dog. The dog did
I got into a little analysis paralysis there on the beach, but
ultimately decided to protect Sam, and to try very hard not to hurt
anyone there, not even hating the dog-beater. But Sam began to cry.
Then -- terribly, wonderfully -- he hissed into his chest for me to DO
First I shushed him. I was just so frightened. I felt like a
small, entranced child, and I felt like an old emaciated person with
stick-figure arms, shaking her cane in the air. But Jesus, who did not
respond well to oppression or cruelty, would have made the man stop
hurting his dog. He'd have said, "This is bad behavior, you must stop
I don't know what I would have felt if the dog had been a breed
that I was scared of -- a Rottweiler, for instance. But it was a golden
retriever, for God's sake. They're the koala bears of the dog world.
And I don't know if I would have done anything if the abuse hadn't gone
any further. But all of a sudden, for no apparent reason, the man
yanked his dog into a standing position, and held her there.
Sam cried out. I got to my feet. I was holding my breath.
Behind me, another mother, who I know by sight, had gotten up too. Her
three children were hiding behind her, watching. She is very poor, and
her children look like Dorothea Lange kids in Disney clothes. We all
gawked at each other. "Stop,'" I called to the man, but quietly. I was
afraid that he would come after us next, that he had a gun. "Stop," I
said again, a bit louder, but shamefully squeaky, like a little mouse.
I was still trying to love him but get him to stop hurting his dog, and
neither worked. He pulled the leash back even harder, so that her head
tipped all the way back and her nose pointed straight into the air.
For a moment the dog hung there from the leash like something on a meat
rack, absolutely still, until Sam cried out really loudly again, and,
like Czeslaw Milosz said, his cry rang out like a pistol shot there on
I looked back at the other mother, and she nodded at me and
moved forward to where I stood, and she shouted at the top of her lungs
like a warrior, "Stop! I am going to call the police now! I am going
to have you arrested."
"YOU say something, too, Mama," whispered Sam, and this is what I
said, with cold fury: "I am going to call the police on my car phone!"
And it was so ludicrous, so Shannen Dougherty, that it stunned us all.
The man laughed at us. He was near the stairs that we would have
climbed to get to our car; and so I couldn't get to the street. Before
anyone could do anything else, he turned away from us and walked up the
wooden stairs with his dog. After a while the six of us walked up the
stairs to the street and looked around, but the man and his dog were
Then the mother and her children and Sam walked down the road to
San Quentin, where they asked the guard at the gates to watch for a man
who was mean to his dog. The guard at the gates said he would.
I went back down to the beach to find Sadie. She came bounding
over. I sat in the sand waiting for Sam to come back, a little afraid
that the man with the dog would ambush them all with a gun. But
everyone returned safely, and after a short conversation, the other
mother and her brood went back to their encampment. Sam and I decided
to walk down the beach.
"Will that dog always have to live with that man?" he asked.
"I hope not. No, actually I don't think she will."
"Why do you think that?"
"I just do." Maybe it's wishful thinking, this snaggly faith of
mine; or maybe it's Miles Davis saying, "Don't play what's there, play
what's not there." If hope is not there, if the possibility of things
getting better is not there, listen a little harder. Because I don't
presume to understand much of anything about Him or Her, but I tell you,
I know where God works. God works in impossible situations, with
impossible people. I'm not going to name names here. But two of them got
up to go for a walk.
The sunlight of a beach can be pitiless and one way you hide is to
cast your eyes down. Then you find yourself looking at small things in
the sand. This of course is always good. We picked up all the usual
things to build with, sticks and seaweed and shells and glass and
bright bits of litter. Waves rolled in and out, softly. The sound of
the ocean is breath. It pulses. I used to lie on beaches stoned and
think I was hearing the sound of the universe breathing. Where else do
you hear this? Hardly anywhere else, although sometimes crickets have
the same wonderful sound of infinity, of something lightly sawing away.